The order from the Harlem Globetrotters came in a few days ago. They usually buy 300-400 a year, and theirs traditionally is the last big Christmas order received. The requests from Ed Asner and Emmylou Harris have arrived, as has one from an Arkansas company that asked for $33,000 worth. Alabama football coach Bear Bryant is a regular customer, as are Gene Autry, Una Merkel, Estee Lauder and Lawrence Welk.
They're all nutty over fruitcake from the Collin Street Bakery here in little Corsicana, as it seems people are all over the country. Texas tycoon H. Ross Perot bought 7,600 fruitcakes a few years ago. Members of the New York Knicks and New York Rangers usually get one from Sonny Werblin. Most of the members of the U.S. Senate and House are on somebody's gift list, and about a dozen a year find their way to the White House, Yuletide compliments of generous citizens. This year, the bakery expects to ship about 4 million pounds of fruitcake.
The fruitcakes are shipped to every country in the world, except Albania, Cuba and Iran, but for years a big delivery was made to the U.S. embassy in Tehran, including in 1979 after the hostages had been taken. No one knows what happened to the fruitcakes that year, but apparently none of the hostages sampled them.
So many of the fruitcakes go overseas that postal officials told the bakery that almost 4 percent of all surface packages shipped overseas come from the Collin Street Bakery. "You can travel around the world and if you say Corsicana enough, someone will say, 'Oh yeah, that's where the bakery is,' " said Bill McNutt Jr., a tall Texan whose father and uncle bought the operation in 1946 and who now runs the show.
The Collin Street Bakery, producer of the Original DeLuxe fruitcake shot round the world, opened in 1896 as a partership between August Weidmann, a German baker, and W.C. (Tom) McElwee, a local bon vivant and moneyman. Ten years later, during an oil boom in Corsicana, the two moved their business off Collin Street, and McElwee put a fancy hotel on top of the bakery and began catering to the likes of Enrico Caruso, Will Rogers, baseball manager John McGraw and the Ringling Brothers and their circus. It was a request by the Ringling Brothers for some of Gus Weidmann's fruitcakes for friends around the country that accidentally launched the bakery's mail order business around 1915.
McNutt's father and uncle bought the bakery from McElwee's widow, gave Weidmann a raise and his choice of working hours, and set off to build up the business. Eight years later, they abandoned everything except fruitcakes.
"We live for one day a year with one product," McNutt said.
A small retail bakery is maintained as an outlet for the five master bakers, who produce fruitcakes for only about 12 weeks during the year.
Just what makes a good fruitcake is a matter of taste, but the Collin Street Bakery prides itself on the quality and purity of its cakes. "Price is our last consideration," McNutt said. The recipe is the one developed by Gus Weidmann at the turn of the century. No preservatives, a minimum of white sugar, the best of fruits and nuts, and absolutely no liquor. "Our feeling on liquor is that it's the ruination of good liquor and good fruitcake," said Bill McNutt III, one of two McNutt boys who work at this homey and homespun operation.
The bakery's loyal customers--70 percent are repeaters--don't like things tampered with, being "auld lang syne" types, as McNutt put it, and when the company changed the fruitcake tin in 1954 there were so many protests that the original was restored the next year. But many customers have their own methods of enhancing the taste, including a doctor who recommends using a syringe to inject a few shots of brandy into the cake.
Everything at the bakery builds toward fruitcake season, which begins with each new crop of pecans in the fall. Winter months are devoted to planning, spring and summer to preparing new mail order brochures--95 percent of the business comes from direct mail--and finding ingredients, including cherries from the Pacific northwest, pineapples from Malaysia, raisins from California, citron from Sicily, and tons and tons of pecans from Texas and Oklahoma. The fruitcake is about 28 percent pecans, McNutt said, and last year the bakery reportedly consumed about 2 percent of the entire world crop. Maurice Pollock, who is responsible for rounding up the ingredients, is an example of the continuity on which the bakery prides itself. He's worked there for 49 years, which is one less than his father.
Production begins in October, and the bakery's workforce of 60 persons swells to 600. On a good day, the bakery produces 31,000 hand-decorated fruitcakes, which are baked in an oven with a capacity of 5,800 cakes. They are sold for prices ranging from $9.15 for a 2-pound cake to $13.15 for a 3-pound creation to $21.45 for a 5-pounder. The price includes shipment to any place the U.S. Postal Service delivers. For an added $3.95, fruitcakes are delivered anywhere else in the world.
First to be shipped are those going overseas, and the bakery will do everthing possible to guarantee delivery by Christmas day. Twice, when strikes shut down the docks on the East Coast, the bakery took diversionary tactics to get their cakes to Europe, airlifting them one year and trucking them to Canada another.
If there is such a thing as fruitcake chic, then the Collin Street Bakery has become the darling of whoever it is that arbitrates such things. People Magazine did a glowing piece on the bakery a few weeks ago, and the phones have been busy ever since. Easygoing Bill McNutt, who has the art of public relations down to a science, likes to put it in a holiday idiom. "We've got 16 lines coming in and they're lit up like Christmas trees," he said.